Friday, May 20, 2011

Theology Essay

In light of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions, critically examine the new annihilationist understanding of the fate of the wicked.



The new annihilationist position is that there is a cessation of existence for the reprobate after the final judgement and the appropriate punishment has been completed. This position does not align with scripture or the Reformed Confessions.

Annihilationism is most commonly defined as the belief that once a sinner, condemned to hell, has paid the punishment for their sins, they will then cease to exist. This initially sounds munificent and almost merciful when compared with eternal cognitive punishment. The theory of damned souls’ total annihilation, and what the Bible and the confessions say on the subject, awaits the reader of this document.

The respected theologian, John Stott, shared his views in this way: “Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal conscious torment in hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain.  But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it . . . my question must be — and is — not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say?”[1]
J.I Packer brings more insight to the situation in this paragraph:
The question is essentially exegetical, though with theological and pastoral implications. It boils down to whether, when Jesus said that those banished at the final judgment will “go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), He envisaged a state of penal pain that is endless, or an ending of conscious existence that is irrevocable: that is (for this is how the question is put), a punishment that is eternal in its length or in its effect. Mainstream Christianity has always affirmed the former, and still does; evangelical annihilationists unite with many Jehovahs Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and liberals — just about all, indeed, who are not universalists — to affirm the latter. Beyond this point, however, evangelical annihilationists have fanned out, and there is no unanimity.[2]

Dr. W. Berends covers other aspects of the topic when he states that “Annihilationism teaches man was created immortal, but that those who continue in sin will be deprived of their immortality. Conditional immortality holds that man was created mortal, but that the believer is awarded immortality”. [3]

Over the years similar ideas and feelings have trickled down through the background humdrum of Christianity. From the time of the early church there were traces of annihilation in various forms. Conditional immortality is one such thread; whilst having a different face, it appears to have similar roots to annihilationism in Greek philosophy in regards to the soul’s separation from the body and its immortality. In modern times, several religious groups[4] have teachings which are similar, and consequently these teachings are now starting to be taken up by mainstream Christianity.  These mainstream advocates of the new annihilationism, or annihilationism proper, have come from a wide range of backgrounds within Christendom:
Annihilationist ideas have been canvassed among evangelicals for more than a century, but they never became part of the mainstream of evangelical faith, nor have they been widely discussed in the evangelical camp until recently. In 1987 Clark Pinnock authored a punchy two-page article titled “Fire, Then Nothing,” but this, though widely read, did not spark debate, any more than the 500-page exposition of the same view, The Fire That Consumes (1982) by the gifted Churches of Christ layman Edward William Fudge, had done.  In 1988, however, two brief pieces of advocacy came from Anglican evangelical veterans: eight pages by John Stott in Essentials, and ten by the late Philip Edgecumbe Hughes in The True Image. [5]

Consultation of the Ultimate Authority is of utmost importance for any theological issue as John Stott rightly states.  God’s word is available for us to know what God has decreed on any particular issue, whether directly or indirectly stated therein.  
There are many passages in the Bible that contain references to Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, and places of discomfort. Sheol, in Judaism, is known as the grave or the abyss. Used by David in the Psalms, Sheol depicts a place where things aren’t particularly nice[6] and God’s presence is still felt.  “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”[7]
The book of Proverbs also mentions Sheol, in terms similar to the teachings of hell by Jesus: ‘Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, “Enough” ’[8].
Hades, the abode of the dead, is seen as the Greek equivalent of Sheol.  Used by the Septuagint, Hades is also mentioned in the New Testament: “The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment . . . .”[9]  

The standard Biblical view of hell is that of eternal conscious torment:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.  And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ ”[10]  

Annihilationists make the following observations:
“Annihilationists have noted that instead of speaking in terms of everlasting suffering, the Bible predominantly describes the fate of the lost in terms of destruction[11].
“Our Lord spoke plainly of God’s judgment as the annihilation of the wicked when he warned about God’s ability to destroy body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28). He was echoing the terms that John the Baptist had used when he pictured the wicked as dry wood about to be thrown into the fire and chaff about to be burned (Matt. 3:10, 12).
The Apostle Paul creates the same impression when he wrote of the everlasting destruction that would come upon unrepentant sinners (2 Thess. 1:9).
He warned that the wicked would reap corruption (Gal. 6:8) and stated that God would destroy the wicked (1 Cor. 3:17; Phil. 1:28). . . . Concerning the wicked, the apostle stated plainly and concisely: “their destiny is destruction” (Phil. 3:19).
It is no different in any other New Testament book. Peter spoke of the “destruction
of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7) and of false teachers who denied the Lord, thus bringing upon themselves “swift destruction” (2:1, 3).[12]

Peterson presents it thus:
The Argument Based on “The Vocabulary of Destruction”
Stott contends that we should understand the Bible literally when it speaks of the damned as “perishing” or suffering “destruction”.  He assumes that these words speak of annihilation, as is evident from his assertion: “It would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed.” Addressing Edwards, his partner in dialogue, he adds: “And, as you put it, it is ‘difficult to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing.’ ”
. . . .
In fact many passages that contain “the vocabulary of destruction” could, if considered by themselves, be construed to teach the extermination of the wicked (John 10:28; 17:12; Rom 2:12; 9:22; Phil 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thess 5:3; Heb 10:39; 2 Pet 3:7, 9; Jas 4:12). If Scripture gave us no other teaching on the final destiny of the wicked than that provided by these and similar passages, annihilationism would be a viable option.
. . . .
Some of the passages Stott cites, however, are difficult to reconcile with
annihilationism. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is one example. Paul says of the disobedient, "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power." Annihilation is an unlikely meaning for the words "everlasting destruction."
Furthermore, does it make sense for the apostle to describe unbelievers'
extinction as their being " shut out from the presence of the Lord"? Does not
their being shut out from his presence imply their existence? Not according
to Atkinson, whose explanation, however, is far from convincing: "All will
agree that the presence of the Lord is everywhere. To be destroyed from the
presence of the Lord can therefore only mean to be nowhere. "On the contrary,
as Scot McKnight argues, "Paul has in mind an irreversible verdict
of eternal nonfellowship with God. A person exists but remains excluded
from God's good presence." [13]

Dr W. Berends succinctly states the case for eternal, conscious, torment:
Annihilationists point to those scripture passages that threaten the wicked with death and destruction, and interpret this to mean that they with cease to exist (e.g. Mt. 7:13; 10:28; Jn. 3:16; Rom. 6:23; 8:13; 2 Thess.1:9). Those who uphold the doctrine of conditional immortality point out that immortality belongs only to God (1 Tim. 6:16), and is conferred upon believers as a gift (e.g. Jn 10:27, 28; 17:3; Rom. 2:7; 6:22,23; Gal. 6:8). Clearly the message of these texts can also be interpreted differently, and in light of those passages that indicate that believers as well as unbelievers will continue to exist it is clear that other interpretation is called for (cf. Eccl 12:7; Mt. 25:46;  Lk. 12:47,48; Rom. 2:8-12; Rev. 14:11; 20:10).[14]

It should be noted that the whole issue has stemmed from looking at the punishment of humans with unbiblical presuppositions; that of what man considers in his sinful state to be ‘fair’. It needs to be stated that God – the Almighty King of the universe - is completely holy, pure, just and glorious[15]. Man is totally depraved; every human being is sinful and guilty before God[16].  The Lord, justly in His role as creator of the universe[17], commands us to be holy just like Him[18].  What then are the implications of this?  God is just so He must punish sinners[19]; if He did not He would be a liar[20].  It must be remembered that God is glorified even when a sinner is paying for his own sins for eternity in Hell, because it declares His Lordship and displays the justice for which we so frequently give Him praise. Man, because of his inborn sinfulness is entirely deserving of this punishment[21].  

The Westminster Confession makes note of this:
I. God hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ[22], to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father[23]. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged[24], but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds, and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.[25]
II. The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy in the eternal salvation of the elect, and of his justice in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fulness of joy and refreshing which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.[26] [27]

In conclusion it is apparent that annihilationism’s main proofs are based more on emotion-driven exegesis than biblical hermeneutical principles. It is my opinion that annihilationism is a heresy and thus should not be entertained in evangelical circles.


Berends, Willem. The Doctrines of Grace, Soteriology & Eschatology.  Lecture notes for the Reformed Theological College: Geelong, 2011.
Bloesch, Donald G. The last things: resurrection, judgment, glory. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Bolt, Peter.  Living with the Underworld.  Kingsford, NSW: Matthias Media, 2007.
Clark H. Pinnock. “The Conditional View,” Four Views on Hell (ed. William Crockett; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992)
Dixon, Larry. The other side of the Good News: confronting the contemporary challenges to Jesus' teaching on hell. Wheaton, Ill: Bridgepoint/Victor, 1992
Edwards, David L. Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal - Evangelical Dialogue. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Pr, 1989
Gomes, Alan W. "Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part One," Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, 14ff.
Keddie, Gordon.  Heaven.  Faverdale North, Darlington: Evangelical Times, 2006
Morgan, Christopher W. "Two views of hell: a biblical and theological dialogue." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45, no. 4 (December 1, 2002): 727-730
Morgan, Christopher W. and Peterson, Robert A.  What is Hell?  Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2010
Packer, James I.  Evangelical Annihilationism in review, Reformation & Revival magazine, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997.
Peoples, Glenn. "Fallacies in the annihilationism debate: a critique of Robert Peterson and other traditionalist scholarship." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50, no. 2 (June 1, 2007)  329-347
Peterson, Robert A. "The Hermeneutics of Annihilationism : The Theological Method of Edward Fudge."Presbyterion 21, no. 1 (March 1, 1995)
Storms, Samuel.  Hell and Annihilationism.  Accessed on 16/05/2011

[1] David L. Edwards,   Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal - Evangelical Dialogue. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Pr, 1989),  315-16
[2] James I. Packer, Evangelical Annihilationism in review, Reformation & Revival magazine, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997.
[3] Dr. Willem Berends,  The Doctrines of Grace, Soteriology & Eschatology.  (Lecture notes for the Reformed Theological College: Geelong, 2011.), 18.4
[4] For example, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christadelphians,
[5] James I. Packer,  Evangelical Annihilationism in review, Reformation & Revival magazine, Volume 6, Number 2 - Spring 1997.
[6] Psalm 18:4-5
[7] Psalm 139:7-8
[8] Proverbs 30:16
[9] Luke 16:22b -23a
[10] Mark 9: 42-48
[11] Glenn Peoples, "Fallacies in the annihilationism debate: a critique of Robert Peterson and other traditionalist scholarship." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50, no. 2 (June 1, 2007): 329-347

[12] Clark H. Pinnock,  “The Conditional View,” Four Views on Hell (ed. William Crockett; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 146

[13] Robert A. Peterson,  "The Hermeneutics of Annihilationism : The Theological Method of Edward Fudge."Presbyterion 21, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 13-28

[14] Dr. Willem Berends,  The Doctrines of Grace, Soteriology & Eschatology.  (Lecture notes for the Reformed Theological College: Geelong, 2011), 18.4
[15] Isaiah 6:3, 66:1-2a; see also John 17:11, in which Jesus attributes holiness to God.
[16] Romans 3:23
[17] Acts 17:24
[18] I Peter 1:16
[19] It is not sinful for God to be wrathful – c.f John 2:13-17 Jesus cleanses the temple.
[20] Numbers 23:19
[21] Isaiah Ps. 14:1;  Revelation 14:11
[22] Acts 17:31
[23] John 5:22,27
[24] 1 Cor. 6:3; Jude ver. 6; 2 Pet. 2:4
[25] 2 Cor. 5:10; Eccl. 12:14 ; Rom. 2:16 ; Rom. 14:10 ,12; Matt. 12:36,37
[26] Matt. 25:31 to the end; Rom. 2:5,6; Rom. 9:22,23; Matt. 25:21; Acts 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:7-10
[27] WCF XXXIII:1-2

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